When you think of a stepdad, what comes to mind? The abusive prick played by Alec Baldwin in Radio Flyer? Maybe it’s Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather, a guy who is so desperate to be seen as a respected family man it sends him into several homicidal rages. Or perhaps you think of the predatory Woody Allen taking Polaroids of Soon-Yi Previn, his partner Mia Farrow’s barely legal adopted daughter.
A study on how stepparents are portrayed in movies found that almost 60 percent of the plots captured the stepparent in a negative light, while the remaining 40 percent were neutral portrayals. In other words, none were positive. By my count, there’s The Brady Bunch and TGIF’s Step by Step, but the overwhelming narrative we’re fed is that stepdads are interlopers who shouldn’t be trusted. They’re either thin-skinned men who turn abusive when they aren’t respected or just straight-up pervs — guys who are waiting for their wives to go to work so they can finally confront their horny stepdaughters about their refusal to wear panties around the house.
As with most things, the bad stepdad stereotype is built upon a misogynistic foundation — i.e., it’s the woman’s fault. The wife is being punished because she destroyed her original family by leaving her husband or by making him leave her. But if she thinks she had it bad before, she’s about to see how bad things can really get when she and her children pay the price with this new piece of shit. If anything, the bad stepdad trope seems to exist to provide a cautionary tale to women who dare seek freedom from a less-than-ideal marriage.
According to marriage and family therapist Heather McPherson, these negative perceptions have ramifications beyond just hurting real-life stepdads’ feelings. “They make it difficult for them to build a relationship with the kids,” she explains. “It puts a lot of pressure on stepdads to defy the stereotypes, rather than just focusing on building a healthy relationship.”
Along those lines, actual stepdads tell me that not being thought of as a “real” parent and constantly having their motives questioned leaves them unsure of how to act. For instance, Eric became a stepdad to an eight-year-old girl in the Chicago-area a decade ago; he’s struggled with how society sees his role ever since. “When our daughter first went to the orthodontist, the treatment coordinator looked at us and said, ‘Who are the real parents?’ I’m still mad at myself for quietly slinking away and sulking rather than making a statement,” he says. Such slights have led to Eric sometimes going overboard, which can create even more tension. “One time my wife was on a business trip, and I was at a school conference,” he explains. “Her biological dad said obnoxiously, ‘I’m her dad.’ I piped up immediately with, ‘Me too.’”
Hugo became a stepdad two years ago at the age of 46. But he actually finds the negative stereotypes to be a blessing. “It’s lowered the bar so much that I get praise for not hitting their mom, not trying to molest anyone and basically being a normal human,” he tells me. He also thinks it’s made him a better parent to his own kids by making him less controlling: “I told my therapist, ‘It’s hard having kids in the house that I’m not allowed to yell at.’ He replied, ‘You were never supposed to yell at your kids.’ So it was good for me to learn to be less of a control freak.”
John is a foster dad in Florida, and he feels deeply affected by the stepdad stereotypes, specifically the Woody Allen story since it involves an adopted child. “I had to stop watching his films, and I was a hardcore Annie Hall fan,” he says. “As an adoptive father, I found his behavior sickening. Even without the sexual assault allegations, the fact that he married the daughter of someone he was romantically involved with is beyond not okay.”
The fact that Allen wasn’t technically Soon-Yi’s stepdad is irrelevant. For Oklahoman Tyler, who became a stepdad at age 20, Allen broke what Tyler considers a sacred bond. “There is a level of trust and responsibility when stepping into a child’s life. In the case of Woody Allen, it feels undeniably like grooming, and I can’t honestly even fathom it,” he explains. “As a whole, society needs to be more aware and accountable for the footprint they have in others’ lives.”
Of course, adding to a stepdad’s burden is the increasing popularity of fauxcest porn, in particular stepdad/stepdaughter scenes. Most porn is about pushing boundaries that might be unacceptable in society, and there’s nothing more taboo than incest. Adding that “step” to “dad” is a way of crossing that line in a slightly less gross way. But as McPherson mentioned earlier, the perception that stepdads might have inappropriate impulses toward their stepchildren have made them hyper aware of anything that might lead to an accusation of impropriety.
Josh definitely feels the pressure of people constantly questioning his motives. “I’m probably much less hug-y as a parent than my wife,” he says. “I have to think that part of that is wanting to shy away from anybody having any doubts about me.” There have been times, too, that Tyler has also gone out of his way to avoid people getting the wrong idea. “With so much controversy centered around children sleeping in the same bed as a non-blood relative, we’ve had to get creative with nightmares and thunderstorms. I choose not to place myself in the crosshairs on that one.”
Stepdads aren’t looking to be praised for doing what they consider the right thing, but they would like us to think twice about the stepdad stereotype. After all, these guys are out there doing the work, and when they’re noticed for it — even in the slightest way possible — it goes a very long way. “I play it cool,” says Sean, a 41-year-old stepdad in New Jersey, “but I secretly enjoy when my stepdaughters’ friends refer to me as their dad and the girls don’t correct them.”